A Few More Thoughts On Improvising

Casey Henry

Murphy’s post last week on improvising sparked quite a discussion, so I thought I’d add some further ideas. This same topic came in one of my banjo lessons on Saturday. Clay, who drives to Nashville from Memphis every now and then for a lesson, had been reading about improvising on this very blog. He broached the question of what counts as improvising and are there different levels of improvising. I assured him that of course there are different levels of improvising! He’s been playing seven years and can play a break to a three-chord song that he doesn’t know (that is, hasn’t sat down and learned a break for) fairly easily. But he was worried that at this point he should be able to make those breaks sound like the melody of the song.

“Absolutely not,” I told him. If he could improvise the melody at this point, he’d be some kind of intuitive banjo super genius! The first step is simply putting licks over the chords. And he can do that. The second step is refining those licks so that they sound more like the tune you’re playing. For instance, on a song like “On and On” that has a melody that starts high, start with hammers instead of a lick down on the fourth string because that follows the shape of the melody more closely.

In Clay’s lesson we went through a couple songs, chord by chord, finding the licks that sounded most like the melody. Almost 100% of the time they were licks that he already knew, he just hadn’t ever thought to pull them out of the song he had learned them in and use them in something else. Most people, when they’re starting to improvise, only use a small number of the licks that they know. It takes some thought and practice to put a wider variety of licks at your disposal—not by learning new ones, but by looking deeper into ALL the songs that you already play. Although going through that process is not technically improvising—strictly speaking it’s practice—it’s doing the groundwork that will help you improvise better next time.

I was in a workshop that Bela Fleck was doing one time and he was talking about improvising. He said that when you start out, you take big chunks from songs that you know and use them in other songs. (The biggest chunk being a whole break—like the break for “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” also works for the song “Will You Be Lovin’ Another Man.”) As you get better the chunks you use get smaller, a phrase, a lick, a part of a lick. Until finally each piece that you’re using is one note long. Even at the highest levels, improvising is not just making stuff up out of thin air. It’s built on the foundation of everything you know and have played before.

10 thoughts on “A Few More Thoughts On Improvising

  1. Martha Carlton

    Improvising is the heart of being able to play at a jam and not make a complete fool of yourself when you try to play a break. I know since I have been made a fool of MANY times. The hard part for me now is to expand my known licks so that I can use them in places that I haven’t used them before. It is so easy to fall into a rut of using the same old licks over and over for every break. I still think I am happy to be able to play a break at all, so it is hard for me now to venture into using and trying other licks which I already know. How stupid is that???? And then, to try to add the back up licks when another person is playing….Hard, ain’t it hard!!!! There must be a way to force the use of new licks. I can think I will do it, but, I may do it one time, and then I lose my place and I have to fall back to the known licks.

    It may be appropriate for a new improvising DVD to be produced for use with instrumentals. But, I think it still comes back to forcing yourself to use old licks in different places.

  2. Martin Bacon

    RIMSBA is also:

    Love Me Darlin’ Just Tonight
    The Crawdad Song
    Red River Valley
    Walking Cane
    Roll On Buddy Roll On
    New River Train
    Tell Me That You Love Me Katy Kline

    if those aren’t right, you better correct me Casey.

  3. Casey Henry

    “Walking Cane” and “Roll on Buddy” do not fit that break. The rest of the songs on the list do. Good call!


  4. Dennis

    It is good to see that my old friend Clay (whom I met at Steve Kaufman’s Acoustic Kamp and saw briefly at a Jam in New Athens, Illinois) is the subject of your Blog. I hope to see Clay (AND Casey) at SKAK this summer.

    Here are a few other songs which follow the I V I IV I V I sequence besides the ones mentioned above (Casey, please correct me if I’m wrong):

    Good Night Ladies
    Happy Birthday
    Old Time Religion
    Banks of the Ohio
    Church in the Wildwood

  5. Casey Henry

    Hey Dennis,

    Of the songs you mention, only “Good Night Ladies” can use the entire “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” break without any changes. The others do follow the same general pattern, but with different numbers of beats. Good suggestions. Thanks!


  6. Clay

    This is almost as good as making the cover of Rolling Stone – or more appropriately, BMP 🙂
    Hey Dennis – good to hear from you again! Still thinking about SKAK; the new format (bluegrass vs old time) kinda threw me a curve.
    Thanks Casey – nice summary of a great lesson…now about those royalties… 🙂

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